CULTURAL EXCHANGE: AN INTERVIEW WITH RYAN CECIL SMITH
Ryan Cecil Smith is an Osaka-based cartoonist who’s part of the Closed Caption Comics cartoonist collective. His recent work with the beautifully risograph-printed SF Supplementary File #2 (An “interpolation comic” that’s proudly stamped with a subtile of “Storytelling of the Future”) has blown many of us away— friend of NOVI William Cardini interviewed him about the artistic process behind SFSF#2 on the exact same day I did.
We spoke over Skype across 9 time zones yesterday about his catalog, his job as a JET program instructor in Japan, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and more. Ryan was an incredibly good sport for taking the time to do this interview with us, as we probably made him miss his morning coffee.
NOVI: One of the things i really wanted to get down was the timeline of all your releases. so what came first, the CCC stuff? Or did you put out your own minis?
RYAN CECIL SMITH: Well, I put out my own minis first, when I was in high school. Like, in 2003 and 2004. We started CCC in my sophomore year— most of ours’ sophomore year in college. We all met each other in first year, and at some point we all decided that we wanted to get together and started it then. We made more books later but we started it in our sophomore year.
NOVI: How many minis do you think you put out before moving as CCC?
SMITH: Probably not so many. Probably around five? Because that would be one a year, or maybe two a year.
NOVI: I got your CCC#9 here in front of me. You know, when I first picked up the SFSF comics, it took me a while to realize that you were the same guy. You use a lot of tones in your CCC#9 contribution, and you don’t use any in the SFSF minis.
SMITH: Yeah, that’s right. Well, I was just trying something different.
NOVI: So when did the first SF comic come out?
SMITH: That was last year, and it debuted at TCAF. I drew it in March.
NOVI: Would you clarify for me about doing the SF Supplementary Files as minis versus just doing an SF#2?
SMITH: My vision for SF is that it would be a straight series. You know, a normal comic series that connects. But I also wanted to make— not like a universe, but I just wanted to be experimental and to do things that were kind of related.
But I didn’t want to break up the story of SF, so I kind of made these comics on the side to go with them, that I thought was cool but didn’t fit into the story. And SFSF#1 was an excuse to do that, and it was also done for a comics festival in Osaka.
SFSF#2 is the same thing. It’s not actually in the universe— it’s not characters from the SF universe, or the comic, but the spirit is the same. It’s close to the spirit of why I’m doing SF. I think it’s really exciting, and that was done for Brooklyn [Comics and Graphic Arts Festival] in December of last year.
So SF#2 I’m working on this year, and that’s kinda the continuation of the story.
NOVI: Is that targeted towards a TCAF release as well?
SMITH: Yeah, it’s kinda just targeted towards whatever! [Laughter.] Whichever convention is within the right area, you know what I mean?
NOVI: I actually haven’t gotten a chance to pick up my own copy of SF#1 yet, and that’s something I’m going to work on ASAP. Looking around on your site, I came across this other project you’re working on, called Two Eyes of the Beautiful. Can you talk to me about that?
SMITH: I was doing that before SF. I did those in around 2009. I did two of them—I did Two Eyes of the Beautiful #2 around the next year. I’ll tell you about that one—I was doing that one when I was first looking at comic books in japan. I mean, I guess it’s always like this, but I knew nothing about anything when I came here. I didn’t know how to find a bookstore, or a comic book store. I didn’t know anything about what they were like in Japan.
I had no idea, so I would just go to this local comic book store. I’d walk by, and just look around [at the stacks.] There were so many books, that I would just pick any one of them. I was pretty good at picking out good ones based on the covers. I actually found Umezu Kazuo’s books just by the cover design. And the production design, which was really amazing. They totally stand out, with a completely different aesthetic. The quality was so good, and the drawing was really something else.
So I picked up this book by Umezu Kazuo called Senrei, which means “baptism.” I couldn’t read it at all, but it was amazing. What I did— Two Eyes of the Beautiful isn’t exactly what’s going on, but it’s what I think was going on. So in Senrei, the book by Umezu Kazuo, it’s about this woman who has this disease. She has a baby, in order to kill it, and the story goes on and on and on. But I thought there were two little girls, and I didn’t know how many women there were. But I managed to peice together a pretty good story, so I told that. It wasn’t exactly the story, but it was fun and weird to do.
NOVI: Sounds kinda like the Voltron anime, where the guy didn’t know the stories behind two different animes so he cut them togeather to make his own show.
SMITH: Oh, I didn’t know that, but that’s the same thing. I’ve never actually seen Voltron, but I bet it’s really good. I bet it works really well.
NOVI: I haven’t seen it either, but apparently it’s a classic. I guess that kinda leads into another question that I wanted to ask you: what’s your background in terms of visual stuff that you were intrested in and looking at when you were growing up?
SMITH: It’s good how you phrased that question, because I often get asked about my influences in terms of comics. I didn’t read comics at all growing up as a kid. Well, I read a little bit, but I really liked cartoons. Like, saturday morning, and every morning. It was “Ninja Turtles.” I probably learned the most visually from “Ninja Turtles.” My early drawings— I would do comics when I was really little. I knew then, but [especially] when I look at them now I go, “this is totally ‘Ninja Turtles.”’ The humor, the Ninja Turtles way of talking.
So yeah, just mostly cartoons when I was a kid.
NOVI: So where are you actually from? I read somewhere that you were from Dallas at some point?
SMITH: No, not Dallas, but I’m from all over. I was born in Los Angeles— well, around Los Angeles, in the suburbs. I grew up in Tennessee a little bit, and I went to high school in North Carolina, in Charlotte. I went to University in Baltimore. Since I’ve been all over the place, I don’t really think of any of those places as “where I’m from.” That’s where I met the rest of the CCC guys, in University. They’re all my best friends; we’re all in different places now but we’re still connected through Closed Captioned Comics.
NOVI: Alright, I got another question about the comics. You talked about how you found the material for Two Eyes of the Beautiful. Did a similar experience draw you into Queen Emeraldas for SFSF#2?
SMITH: It’s pretty similar. The way I’ve found out about a lot of artists that I like—same with Queen Emeraldas's Matsumoto Leiji and Umezo Kazuo—is just by going to cheap used bookstores and picking up stuff off the shelves. Looking at it and deciding what I like. That’s how I found Matsumoto Leiji. For Umezo Kazuo it was totally raw and by chance. In Matsumoto’s case, I knew he was famous, but I didn’t know a whole lot about it. I was a little bit more informed when I found Matsumoto Leiji and when I did SFSF#2.
NOVI: I think Mark’s interview with you covered most of what you’d want to say about SFSF#2. Alright, one thing that I’d just want to know out of personal interest: is there any sort of English-speaking comics scene in Japan?
SMITH: I don’t think so. Or I don’t know. Probably, I am not 100% super excited about fostering and searching for that scene. If there was one, I don’t know so much about it. I haven’t looked super hard, so I don’t know if there is one really.
What there is a big scene for is zines. It has a different meaning here than it does in Japan. It really doesn’t mean comics. It includes comics a little bit, but zine culture is pretty big. I live in Osaka, and in Osaka and Tokyo there exists pretty significant zine culture. There’s a lot of people who do that, and who’ve gone to zine events. And that’s really awesome. And there’s a few English speakers at that thing, but it’s not overwhelming. In those cases it’s mostly a fifth of the people there speak English. Which is pretty— well, it’s more than usual than for most things.
NOVI: That’s very interesting. About Japan: you talk a lot on your tumblr about working as a JET instructor. Can you tell me about what you do?
SMITH: My official title is “Assistant Language Teacher.” I am one of two foreign English teachers at my high school through the JET program. It’s a goverment program to hire foreign English teachers with the aim of hiring and sending teachers to areas that wouldn’t normally get served by that sort of thing. Especially rural areas. It’s mainly for cultural exchange. My job is a teacher, but the reason for the program is more cultural and not very based on classroom stuff.
So what I do in my daily job and life: I used to go to two schools, I now go to only one school. I have a few classes every day. It’s pretty lax teaching. I just do conversation and communication based stuff. And cultural lessons. It’s not a very hard job, if I’d have to say. I feel like half of my job is being friendly to every student. I feel that it makes my school very happy if I talk to every single student. If I work really hard at school making a lesson or teaching, they don’t really care, but if I keep being friendly they like that.
NOVI: I saw on your site that you kind of incorporate comics into your teaching approach?
SMITH: I do, but I think that in the last year I’ve kind of abandoned that. Not forever, but now I only do it when I can use it. I used to try and force it more, and I found that it didn’t really work.
I’ll tell you an example: I tried to use some western comics in the classroom for reading, because as a Japanese learner, comics are a really great way to study English because you don’t have to read an entire block of text. And there’s pictures and context to help you. Obviously you have to learn the foundations normally, but they’re a really great way to practice.
Comics are a great way to learn, but it took me to figure out that my students don’t care about western comics. It’s really funny, because if I teach them using comics—no matter what kind of comic; alternative comics or any sort of comics I find—they’re just like, “what is this?”
But if I give them an English translation of Dragonball, then they’re a lot more motivated. And that’s old. Dragonball or [Detective] Conan or anything Japanese. It kind of bugged me that the cultural sharing was not there, so that was surprising. Plus, any sort of challenge is pretty unusual to my students, and is pretty unusual for the other teachers to see. So for a while I kind of have to force it.
Comics are a great tool for personal study, but I haven’t found a way to use it effectively in the classroom.
NOVI: Here’s a question which may or may not even be accurate with regards to what you were doing— it may just be the age of the comics you’re working from, but I feel that there’s kind of this thing going on in the alternative comics scene where more and more people are starting to appreciate what shojo manga has really done. And it’s really shojo-y, the SFSF#2 comics. But I’m not sure if that’s just the style people were using in the particular time frame that Queen Emeraldas was drawn in.
SMITH: Well, Matsumoto Leiji, at least in Queen Emeraldas’s case, it wasn’t a shojo manga. It ran in a shonen magazine, so it’s interesting that you would say that. Although I wouldn’t say that it’s a particularly gender specific story—he has heroines, and I could talk about the gender positions in the comic—but as for shojo, the way he does the spreads and his layouts, with a majestic and grand way of showing things, makes a heavy atmosphere. Which is more familiar with shojo manga readers. And yeah, that kind of atmosphere is kind of rare in boys manga. I don’t think anyone Japanese would call it shojo, but the heavy atmosphere doesn’t seem like a shonen comic type of thing.
NOVI: I think that the Risograph printing of SFSF#2 really hits you hard in those full-bleed spreads.
SMITH: Yeah, I like it! I told Mark that when I chose that section of the manga for SFSF#2 that those spreads and sequences in this part of the story just blew me away. So your reaction is my reaction to that stuff; I felt the same thing.
NOVI: You said that you had something to say about the gender stuff in Matsumoto’s comic. And also, the reason that I asked about shojo in particular was that in my initial round of research for this interview I found that Two Eyes of the Beautiful was also about girls, so I thought that there was a shojo thing going on.
SMITH: Well, Two Eyes of the Beautiful is an example of the same kind of gender mix. In Matsumoto Leiji’s case with Queen Emeraldas, most of it’s scifi shonen manga. I wouldn’t call any of his stuff shojo manga, but I think it’s very much for both genders.
In the case of Umezo Kazuo and Baptism, that story is really interesting to me because he was hired to work on—and by the way, I learned this from Ryan Sands and the Samehat! website, where the’res a long interview about Umezu Kazuo—Kazuo was hired to work in girls comics magazines! Even though he was this dude who drew all this grotesque horror way of making comics.
He was hired to work on girls comics, and was told to not include any boy characters. So I thought that was so awesome. I’d never seen anything like that. Because most of our horror comics and horror movies in America, and maybe abroad, is that they’re mostly a boy thing, or a date thing. We have a history of misogynist horror movies too. So I’ve never seen anything like this, where it’s really grotesque horror, with a girl’s audience.
There are some translations of these kind of comics, but I don’t remember the publisher. They’re really interesting. If you look up his stuff on Amazon lists, one is called Faces, one is called Insects, and one is called Reflections. They’re collections of all these short stories, and they’re really good. [These collections are published under the name Scary Book and are put out by Dark Horse -Ed.]
In Two Eyes of the Beautiful, and most of Kazuo’s girls horror stuff, you can talk about gender and you can talk about girls, but there’s nothing sexual about any of it. Which I though was really cool. I guess because I’m kind of used to sexuality in horror movies being exploitive, and there’s nothing like that in Kazuo’s comic. I love it, I think it’s so cool.
Ryan Cecil Smith is planning to have SF#2 ready by TCAF in May. You can purchase his comics at his website ryancecilsmith.com
ryan cecil smith
closed caption comics
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